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Translating Ute place names

Article by Jeanne Englert

Ute Language – August 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Editor’s Note: As this article will explain, the Southern Ute language, as currently written, employs many letters that are not in the standard computer character set. Until we can figure out how to display them in HTML (we used an equation editor when setting the article into type for the magazine), we present them here the way they would be if HTML had the characters.

For instance, a g with a circumflex (an a with a circumflex appears as â and is encoded as â) will appear here as ĝ.

Other special characters so treated:

&icedil; is an i with a cedilla (the little hook under the c in ç)

&ocedil; is an o with a cedilla.

&ócedil; is an ó with a cedilla

&tacute; is a t with an acute accent mark.

&acedil; is an a with a cedilla.

ţ is a t with a cedilla.

Travelers venturing southward in Central Colorado may wonder if there is any connection between the word Sawatch, name of the magnificent mountain range they just admired, and the name of the county and town, Saguache — pronounced identically, though the spelling varies considerably.

They are at heart the same word. But Otto Mears, the diminutive Russian immigrant who founded Saguache, couldn’t spell the Ute word saĝmá-ci, nor could the cartographer who put Sawatch on our maps. As a matter of fact, nobody could spell it, since Southern Ute was not a written language then, and wouldn’t be until 1977.

Sawatch and Saguache both mean a blue-green place; the Ute spectrum uses the same word for blue, green, and all shades in between, so both Green Earth Farms and the Blue Earth Bed & Breakfast thereabouts are reasonable translations.

The problem Mears faced in transliteration (moving a word from one language to another) is the same one that has vexed explorers, founders, and cartographers over the centuries: spelling. For example, Marquette and Joliet, in trying to spell the local Indian name for “the long river,” came up with “Quinconsing” in their diaries. We know it today as “Wisconsin.”

In retrospect, Mears did a pretty good job with Saguache, about as close as English can get to saĝmá-ci (more precisely saĝmá-ĝar&icedil;-ci.)

Mears, and many since him, faced problems in moving between Ute and English, since only half the meaningful sounds (phonemes) in Ute can be represented in the standard English alphabet.

Compounding this difficulty is that speakers of one language often cannot hear distinctions between sounds in other languages. It’s a tactless clich that many Asians cannot distinguish between English “R” and “L” sounds.

Closer to home, this happens among speakers of the same language. In 1982, Massachusetts transplant Tom Cronin ran for Congress and campaigned in the mountains. He doubtless alienated some of his Buena Vista audience by talking about “Collar Radder,” which to him was probably the same as “Colorado.” But some people joked that Cronin was welcome to represent “Collar Radder” — if he could find it.

With these complications in mind, let us try to understand the Ute place names we’ve been graced with: Uncompahgre River, Pagosa Springs, Pariah Plateau, Yampa River, Weminuche Wilderness Area, Cochetopa Pass, Tomichi Creek, Tabeguache, and Poncha Pass.


Poncha? Isn’t that Spanish? Despite appearances, it’s not. It’s Ute, but so mangled in spelling that I appealed to Southern Ute Tribal Elder and Ute language expert Annabelle Eagle to explain it.

“It’s trail-shoe (poo-paca),” she says. We Anglos would say footpath — what it was when Mears built his first toll road in 1867 to transport his wheat from saĝmá-ci over the p&&oacutecedil;&ocedil;-páca to the miners extracting gold from California Gulch.

Go on down U.S. 285, and turn at Del Norte to head west on U.S. 160 to Pagosa Springs.

That’s another Ute spelling problem, but we can’t blame Mears for that one. It’s the fault of John N. Macomb, a topographic engineer for the U.S. Army.

Pagosa (paĝósa-ĝwanoy) means “water that smells like sulfur.” We could say smelly, stinking spring water. Or as Douglas Eagle Remington elucidated, “Acrid, like smelling an armpit in the days before Arrid Extra-Dry.” But don’t tell the Pagosa Chamber of Commerce. They think it means boiling water. It’s not good for business to say the water stinks.

Near Pagosa are the Weminuche Casino and Lake Capote. Capote was the name of one Southern Ute band, and it started as the Spanish word capota, meaning hood. The Utes adopted the word (kapúuta), and then it crossed into English to emerge on our maps as Capote.

The Weminuche, one Southern Ute band, are “people who keep to the old ways.” The root word is núcci, Ute person. The plural is núu-ci-u.

Tabeguache, the name of a northern band who wintered near Naturita (and of a 14er near Salida), is linguistically akin to Saguache.

Descendants of the Anglo settlers at Naturita say it means “sunnyside.” That seems reasonable; the Ute word for sun is tavá-ci. But my guess is that there’s more to tabeguache than sun, especially if applied to the Ute people who wintered there. It was more likely “people who live in the direction of the setting sun” — to us, the Western Slope.

Adjoining Mt. Tabeguache is Mt. Shavano. Although Shavano was Ouray’s war chief, his name is like Capote; it comes from Spanish and has no Ute roots.


Back to Pagosa, which is one of the Ute paw words — like Pariah, Yampa, Uncompahgre, even Uintah. (There’s a real spelling problem. A Uintah Ute person is paĝwá-núu-ci, literally “water-edged Ute.”)

Páa means water in Ute. If there’s a “paw” in a Ute place name, it’s a good bet it refers to water of some kind or other. Uncompahgre River (?aká-páa-ĝarú-r&icedil;) means “red water sitting.” Pariah, we can logically surmise, comes from paári?i (water-irrigate); not, as I had once ignorantly assumed, for the East Indian caste.

Yampa (yampa-riki, also known as yampa-tika) is more difficult. It’s a root or tuber the Utes used for food. Probably “water-plant.” Or, some say, “common plant.”

What we can say for certain is that the Glenwood Springs pool people are dead wrong. Their brochure says their Yampa Hot Springs Pool means “good medicine.” But the Ute word for medicine (musu&tacute;kwi-vi) doesn’t even come close to that. I suspect the good medicine was a fanciful creation of the Glenwood pool publicists.


One problem the recent place-namers had was that the Utes keep going when the namer thinks the word is finished. That is because Ute is what linguists call an agglutinative language. To stick to the “paw” theme, English occasionally does this, as in watercourse, waterlogged or waterwheel. But we still make two words out of water heater.

Briefly — this is not linguistics 101 and there’s no credit for it — an agglutinative language has a tendency to unite into one noun what takes us Anglo speakers a sentence to say.

In Ute, the English word “spring” is páa-cipí-ke-ţi, literally “water coming up,” certainly an apt word this year. A lake is “have water.” A natural pond is “sitting water.” A stock pond, or any artificial body of water, is “water caused to sit.” By the time the Ute speaker gets to the last word, he’s got páa-ĝarú-ti-ke-t&icedil; [a pond] built upon páa-ĝar-r&icedil; [a lake].

I shudder to think what a creative Southern Ute speaker could call the Ridges Basin Reservoir in the controversial Animas-La Plata project in southwest Colorado, which causes 315,000 acre-feet of water to sit. Given that the intake pumps for this reservoir are located just below Durango’s sewer plant, he could easily add páa-kwic&ácedil;y (fecal water) to the noun construction.

That word means diarrhea, but the Southern Utes love wordplay. For example, when in my own decoding of “paw” words, I realized that pariah, which is also the name of one Colorado band, had to do with irrigation, Southern Ute tribal member Cynthia Kent came up with, “So they (the band that inhabited the main stem of the Colorado River) are the ‘dam Indians,’ and we (the Southern Utes whose tribal government supports the reclamation project) are the ‘damn Indians.'”


Concerned that the Ute language was in danger of dying, the Southern Ute Tribal Council authorized the Ute Language Program in 1975. With a federal grant, the tribe hired Tom Givón, an associate professor of linguistics at UCLA, to develop an alphabet, dictionary, and grammar book.

He faced a monumental task, far more than simply transcribing Ute sounds into letters. The program was subject to many pitfalls. In his preface to the Ute dictionary, Givón observes that, “Many subtle decisions about both grammar and style are involved, together with a great number of bread-and-butter considerations such as space, economy, and social acceptability. It is unlikely that all these problems have been solved to everybody’s satisfaction.”

If anything, that’s an understatement. Upon arrival at the Tribal Affairs Building, the Southern Ute headquarters at Ignacio, in 1977, the Tribal Linguist learned he must wrangle himself an office. Then he had to deal with the tyranny of the Property & Supply Department to get an IBM Correcting Selectric IITM with an international font. (The in-house joke was you had to fill out a requisition form in triplicate just to get a #2 pencil.)

Somehow he survived the Catch-22 of how he was supposed to type the requisition form when he was trying to requisition a typewriter. Eventually he was assigned an office and an ill-ventilated room in the basement of the Tribal Affairs Building to conduct interviews.

Having surmounted most of the bureaucratic hurdles, Givón was ensconced in his space when, on account of a kink in the sewer line, the páa-kwic&ácedil;y began backing up.

Despite these setbacks — the foul water rose to the fourth step of the basement stairwell — Givón produced a seminal document, the Ute dictionary. He had to deal with the tribal bureaucracy and personal discomfort — one of his main language sources, a chain smoker, used to blow smoke rings in his face while pondering the meaning of a word — and Givón also had to contend with the politics of the Ute language committee.

Each member had his or her own idea of what correct Ute was. (And each would tell me privately that the other members of the committee didn’t speak “good Ute.”)

He also discovered that a previous education director had been systematically purging the Ute vocabulary of all Spanish and English borrowings with the goal of compiling “pure Ute.” If we did that, an English-language dictionary would be reduced to the size of the Saguache telephone book.

Givón produced the Ute phonetic alphabet in 1977, as proud of his effort as a mother of her newborn. As editor of the Southern Ute Drum, I was almost as proud as Givón, just from being at the periphery of the program, privileged to witness the process of how an unwritten language gets codified in print.

When it appeared, I talked to Leonard Burch, chairman of the Southern Ute Tribe. “Congratulations,” I said, “You’re now illiterate.”

The tribal chairman was not amused at his new illiteracy. He assumed, as did many other Southern Utes, that as a fluent Ute speaker he would be able to read and spell the language at first glance. Leonard had forgotten that he once had to learn to read and write English — none of us was born knowing how to read and write any language.

It did not help that the Tribal Linguist often pointed out that it can take years to learn how to spell English correctly. However, Southern Ute spelling is “in some sense” easier than English because it is “unambiguous and clear to the extreme,” even if it relies heavily on diacritical marks — those little hats, hooks, and accent marks borne by some letters.

I suspect Leonard saw himself descending into diacritical hell if he took up writing in Ute. Besides, he was far too busy tending to affairs of state to be slaving over a grammar primer. I can’t say as I blame him; I myself got diacritic elbow just writing this article, and I fear for the sanity of those who must set it in type. To this day the Southern Utes “don’t like the spelling,” says Alden Naranjo, director of tribal education.

But if Leonard was intimidated by symbols like /?/, the glottal stop (as in Brooklynese where it sounds as though the speaker is swallowing his word), others embraced the new alphabet. Head Start and the school district combined to create a nature trail in a weedlot between the elementary school and the Los Piños River with signs in English, Spanish, and Ute.

Some of the younger Utes were ecstatic to see their language in print. “At last I can spell my [Ute] name,” said Gayla Cloud Smith, who began signing her angry letters to the Drum that way.

(To order a copy of the Ute dictionary, send $44 to Department of Education, Southern Ute Tribe, Box 737, Ignacio CO 81137.)


Technically, Ute is a dead language. Givón was pessimistic, pointing out that linguists consider Gælic, with 95,000 speakers, a dead language. And every time I read a Ute obituary in the Durango Herald I see another nail hammered in the Ute-language coffin. But I have reasons to be more optimistic than Givón was when he worked on this project.

We must consider that Ute (specifically the Southern Ute dialect) is part of a language family, not an isolated tongue. Ute belongs to the Shoshone branch of Uto-Aztecan with plenty of kissin’ cousins. Bannock and Comanche are close relatives. A Bannock can understand a Comanche once he gets the hang of it, akin to how a Spaniard and a Portuguese might talk with an Italian. For example, Comanches say something like nuu-um for person instead of núc-cí.

Even closer, there’s still a reservoir of Paiute speakers in Nevada. I asked Annabelle Eagle if she could understand Paiute. “Oh yes,” she replied, “but sometimes it’s hard to follow. They call us the ‘slow-talkers.'”

Ah yes, the Southern drawl.

I also take comfort in Ute language evolution. In American English, we know what a “red herring” is, even if we don’t know the original meaning of the phrase. Cochetopa Pass is a good example of similar evolution in Ute. The word purportedly means something like pass of the buffalo. (Hear that kúcu — buffalo — in “coch”?) “But not any more,” says Alden Naranjo. “It now means pass to anywhere.”

We must also keep in mind that at the least, the Ute Language Program produced an accurate description of the language. Descendants of Ute speakers today can, thanks to this legacy, learn to speak and write the language of their ancestors.

Perhaps one of these youngsters will, using this resource, figure out if Pieance really means “old squaws’ camp,” as Marshall Sprague, author of the book about the Meeker massacre, claimed it means. Or confirm Givón’s speculation that tomichi probably means something like good winter (or wintering) grounds — which seems dubious when you consider that Tomichi Creek is in the Gunnison Country.

My best hope for the future of the Ute language, though, is Annabelle Eagle’s lament about how the teen-agers use the language. “I don’t like the slang,” she said.

Well, as po?o-mi-ti of this article, I can’t pronounce any language dead when the kids who use it can irritate Grandma with their slang.

Jeanne Englert, who lives in Lafayette, was once editor of the Southern Ute Drum at the reservation headquarters in Ignacio.